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Travel Talk: Destination Flanders

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Travel Talk: Destination Flanders

Where Canadians are forever remembered He's known as The Canadian, or The Brooding Soldier, and he towers, in his sculpted granite form, 11 metres into the sky, visible for miles around the tiny village of Saint Julian, in Belgium, not far from Iepers, formerly Ypres. With bowed head, and hands resting on a reversed rifle, this sombre statue of a Canadian soldier honours his 2,000 country men who fell - on this very spot - in the first German gas attack of the First World War on two fateful days in April, 1915. [caption id="attachment_14083" align="aligncenter" width="300"] The Brooding Soldier The Brooding Soldier: Saint Julian, Belgium (Photo: Doug O'Neill)[/caption]

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The base of the statue is cluttered with wreaths from visiting Canadians, some from politicians, others from Canadian families who've made the trek to Belgium to honour an ancestor, perhaps a great uncle or a great-grandfather. I ponder the words read aloud by Commander-in-Chief Marshal Ferdinand Foch the day the statue was unveiled in 1923: "The Canadians paid heavily for their sacrifice and the corner of earth on which this Memorial of gratitude and piety rises has been bathed in their blood. They wrote here the first page in that Book of Glory which is the history of their participation in the war." [caption id="attachment_14085" align="aligncenter" width="201"] The Brooding Soldier stands guard over his 2,000 fallen Canadian countrymen The Brooding Soldier stands guard over his 2,000 fallen Canadian countrymen, Flanders, Belgium (Photo: Doug O'Neill)[/caption]

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And as I stand there at the base of the towering plinth, pondering these heavy words, mesmerized by the closed eyes of the granite soldier, I hear cars break as they enter the intersection of the N313 road and Zonnebekestrat, a stone's throw from where I stand in this roadside memorial in rural Belgium. In the very near distance, a farmer's tractor roars to life, and a dog barks at two passing cyclists. Life carries on and that makes the Brooding Soldier's presence even more poignant. Gone but not forgotten. Part of everyday life. The Brooding Soldier in Saint Julian is by no means the biggest nor most imposing war monument in Belgium. Nor does it claim the geographical scope of Ypres or Passchendaele or Flanders Fields. And it doesn't rival the magnitude of despair evoked at the mammoth Menin Gate in Ypres which contains the names of 54,000 Commonwealth soldiers who died in bloody, muddied fields in this part of Europe between 1914 to 1918. But still, the Brooding Soldier is never far from my thoughts as I tour the numerous First World War memorials in various parts of Belgium, particularly West Flanders. Tributes are paid, the dead are honoured, courageous soldiers — many of them young boys from across Canada — are remembered, as daily life continues. At the newly-opened and refurnished In Flanders Field Museum in Iepers,  war tributes are not relegated to dusty backroom archives. Thanks to a new interactive media system, visitors can access, with the swipe of a barcode, the war-time experiences of of men and women, and sometimes children. War historians show up daily, but so too do young families and inquisitive youth. The presence of young people at war memorials throughout Flanders is heartening. [caption id="attachment_14088" align="aligncenter" width="240"] Youth and war memorials, Menin Gate War memorials, such as Menin Gate, are embedded into the daily lives of Belgians, young and old. (Photo: Doug O'Neill)[/caption]

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In Ieper, where The Last Post is performed each evening at 8 pm at Menin Gate, young people are included in the ceremony. I watched one evening a few months ago as scores of students joined the hundreds gathered for the nighttime ritual, one that has been performed nightly since 1928 (with a break during the Second World War). Buglers played, and then students and adults together laid wreaths to honour the fallen. After the ceremony, people go about the business of living. And that's as it should be. In your travels: Have you ever visited a war memorial elsewhere in the world? What emotions did it evoke?
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Travel Talk: Destination Flanders

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